Lao rebellion (1826–28)

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Lao rebellion (1826–1828)
Date 1826 – 1828
Location Khorat Plateau, Isan, Laos
Result Siamese victory
Territorial
changes
Siam consolidates control of Vientiane
Belligerents
Kingdom of Vientiane
Kingdom of Champasak
Rattanakosin Kingdom (Siam)
Commanders and leaders

Anouvong[1]
Nyo[2]
Uparat Tissa[3]

Raxavong Ngao[4]
Phraya Bodindecha
Thao Suranari
Sakdiphonlasep
Royal statue of Chao Anouvong in Chao Anouvong Park, Vientiane, Lao PDR.
Southeast Asia c.1707-1828 showing the Lao kingdoms of Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Champasak, and the principality of Phuan (Xieng Khuang)

The Lao Rebellion of 1826–1828 (also known as Anouvong’s Rebellion) was an attempt by King Anouvong (Xaiya Sethathirath V) of the Kingdom of Vientiane to end the suzerainty of Siam and recreate the former kingdom of Lan Xang. In January 1827 the Lao armies of the kingdoms of Vientiane and Champasak (ruled by Anouvong's son) moved south and west across the Khorat Plateau, advancing as far as Saraburi, just three days march from the Siamese capitol of Bangkok. The Siamese quickly mounted a counterattack, forcing the Lao forces to retreat. The Siamese continued north to defeat Anouvong's army. His rebellion had failed, which led to his capture, the destruction of his city of Vientiane in retaliation, a massive resettlement of Lao people to the west bank of the Mekong River, and direct Siamese administration of the former territories of the Kingdom of Vientiane. The rebellion was a watershed moment in the history of Southeast Asia, as it further weakened the small Lao kingdoms, perpetuated conflict between Siam and Vietnam and ultimately facilitated French involvement in Indochina in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The legacy of the Lao rebellion is controversial. It is viewed in Thailand as a ruthless and daring rebellion that had to be suppressed, and has given rise to the folk heroes such as Thao Suranari and Chao Phaya Lae. In Laos, King Anouvong is now revered as a national hero who died in pursuit of complete independence, even though he lost both his life in an ill-advised revolt against heavy odds and virtually guaranteed that the Lao-speaking provinces across the Mekong River would remain as part of Siam (now Thailand).

Background[edit]

In 1707 the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang fragmented into rival kingdoms – Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and 5 years later into a third Champasak —- as a result of a dispute over the succession to the throne. The Kingdom of Vientiane was the strongest, with its influence extending across the Khorat Plateau (now in modern Thailand) and in conflict with the Kingdom of Luang Prabang for control of the Xieng Khouang Plateau (on the border of modern Vietnam).

Between the 1760s and 1770s, the neighboring kingdoms of Siam and Burma competed for alliances with the Lao kingdoms, due to the bitter rivalry and history of warfare between the two Southeast Asian powers. For both Siam and Burma, an alliance with the Lao would strengthened their position against their rival by increasing their own forces and denying them to the enemy. The use of competing alliances further militarized the conflict between the Lao kingdoms of Luang Prabang and Vientiane. If one of the Lao kingdoms formed an alliance with either Burma or Siam, the other would tend to support the opposite side. The network of alliances shifted repeatedly with the political and military landscape throughout the late eighteenth century.

The First Siamese Invasion of Vientiane[edit]

Following the conquest of Siam by Burma in 1767 and the death of its monarch, General (Chao Phaya) Taksin eventually emerged and consolidated sufficient power to resist new Burmese invasion attempts and captured the Kingdom of Lanna (Chiangmai) in 1775. In November 1778, the Siamese moved to take Vientiane, because of the kingdom’s previous alliance with Burma. Chao Phaya Taksin led a pincer attack against the Lao kingdoms. General Chao Phraya Chakri with a force of 20,000 marched overland toward Vientiane, while a separate force of 10,000 under General Surasi came up on Vientiane from the south, taking Champasak, Nakhon Phanom, and Nongkhai. The Siamese forces combined and besieged Vientiane for four months, eventually being assisted by the Kingdom of Luang Prabang. The siege was successful and Vientiane finally fell. Vientiane was the most populous of the Lao kingdoms, and had been the capital of the former kingdom of Lan Xang after 1560. As was the practice at the time, the city was looted but was spared destruction. The Emerald Buddha and several other important Buddha images were taken to Siam, while the royal family and many others were forcibly moved to Saraburi, northeast of the ruins of Ayutthaya, which had been destroyed by the Burmese. In 1779, the Siamese withdrew from the kingdoms of Vientiane and Champasak, leaving them under temporary military rule, while the kingdom of Luang Prabang accepted Siamese suzerainty.

Causes of the Lao Rebellion[edit]

The unrest which led to the Lao Rebellion can be attributed to changing political identities and the population transfers, the seizure of international trade which further isolated the Lao kingdoms, the loss of national prestige and cultural icons during the wars with Siam, massive conscription and corvee labor projects, and most importantly the policy of Rama III of implementing tattooing (the Siamese method of identification) on the ethnic Lao population in the Khorat Plateau.

Population Transfers and Divided Nobility[edit]

In the aftermath of the Siamese and Burmese wars of the 1760s and 1770s, Siam began to take administrative control over the ethnic Lao on the Khorat Plateau. By the late eighteenth century the traditional political and military models were changing and nationalism was on the rise.

The traditional relationship among the kingdoms of Southeast Asia is best understood using the Mandala political model. Within the Mandala model, wars are waged to control population centers for corvee labor and international trade. Legitimacy comes from Buddhist religious authority, transferred through acts of religious merit (sponsoring the sangha and the construction of temples) and the possession of Buddhist palladium images (like the Emerald Buddha). Vassal kings were given a high degree of autonomy, provided that they made an annual tribute of gold and silver (traditionally modeled into trees), provided tax and tax in-kind, raised support armies in time of war, and provided corvee labor for state projects. These lesser kings retained their power to raise additional taxes, discipline their own vassals, inflict capital punishment, and appoint their own officials.

The destruction of Ayutthaya in 1767 virtually eliminated the existing royalty in Siam and allowed men like General Taksin and Chakri (Rama I) to rise to power. The years of warfare created a huge need in Siam for labor and resources. The conquest of Lao lands gave Siam needed access to labor and materials, the Khorat Plateau was easily accessible to Siam and provided area for expansion. However, the Khorat traditionally had been part of the Lao kingdoms, with a number of important cities and centers of power such as Nong Bua Lamphu, which was the traditional stronghold of the crown princes of Vientiane. Beginning in the 1780s, Siamese monarchs rewarded their regional governors for military service, increases in population, or productivity by bestowing new titles on them and giving them cities to administer. The Khorat Plateau thus was divided among a new group of nobility at the expense of areas traditionally controlled by the Lao rulers of Vientiane. In 1778, only Nakhon Ratchasima was tributary to Siam. By the end of the reign of Rama I, however, Sisaket, Ubon, Roi Et, Yasothon, Khon Khaen, and Kalasin all paid tribute directly to Bangkok. According to Thai records, by 1826 the number of towns and cities on the Khorat had grown from 13 to 35, made possible by Lao population transfers for corvee labor.

Symbols and Identity[edit]

Haw Phra Kaew, Vientiane. Former Royal Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

The loss of the Emerald Buddha in 1779 became a symbol for the captivity of the Lao themselves. Important Buddha figures serve as protective symbols for the kingdoms of Southeast Asia. In 1558, King Setthathirath, one of the greatest kings of Lan Xang, had taken the Emerald Buddha from the Kingdom of Lanna, which he also ruled, and it was thereafter regarded as a protective religious figure for the Lao monarchy and the city of Vientiane. In the 1770s the Siamese needed royal regalia to reinforce the monarch's legitimacy along traditional cultural lines, since the Burmese had completely destroyed Ayutthaya and looted the palaces of everything worth taking. When Vientiane fell in 1779, the Siamese spared the city but took from the temples and palaces of anything which could help replace what they themselves had lost. However, the seizure of their religious iconography crystallized the Lao identity even more, and created a strong undercurrent of anti-Siamese resentment.

When Anouvong came to power, he ordered a replacement for the Emerald Buddha to be made, not only in Vientiane but also in Srichiangmai on the Khorat, Xieng Khouang, and later in Champasak. Anouvong also rebuilt and greatly enhanced the Haw Phra Kaew in Vientiane, the royal temple that had housed the Emerald Buddha before it was taken to Bangkok. His drawing continued attention to the loss of the Emerald Buddha clearly had political overtones.

The Mekong and the Seizure of International Trade[edit]

In 1812 a succession dispute in Cambodia provided a pretext for the regional rivalries of Siam and Vietnam. When the Vietnamese arrived with an army to support their candidate, the Siamese withdrew. The Siamese army spread out with the Khorat Plateau at their back, and in 1814 took the Dangrek Mountains, as well as the Cambodian provinces of Mlou-Prey, Tonle Repou and Stung Treng. Siam expanded its territory, but in the process had blocked Lao trade with Cambodia and Vietnam. This diverted international trade toward Bangkok over the Khorat Plateau, where heavy customs duties were in place. With the Mekong effectively blocked to trade, Bangkok grew in importance as the major port for European and international traders en route to Singapore and China.

Transcription, Corvee Labor, and Forced Tattooing[edit]

Between 1779 and 1826, the Siamese and Burmese were in almost perennial conflict (see Burmese-Siamese Wars). Siam sought trade in weapons from Europe, and relied upon heavy conscription from the Lao and the Malay areas in the south to strengthen their forces. During the campaigns against the Burmese near Chiang Mai, Prince Anouvong gained military distinction as a successful military commander and a loyal vassal of Siam.

In addition to military conscription, corvee labor was required by Siam. Lao laborers would assist in digging the canals of Bangkok, building a dam at Ang Thong in 1813, and constructing several forts along the Chao Phraya. Between 1810 and 1860, Siam began the intense cultivation of sugarcane for the European trade. Sugar plantations are labor-intensive and required corvee labor from the Chinese, Khmer, Lao and hill tribes in their domain.

With the accession of Rama III, the years of corvee labor and conscription were brought to breaking point by the institution of the forced tattooing of the Lao population. The tattoos were used to ensure an accurate census for corvee labor and taxation. All adult males in Siam had their census number and village name marked on their wrist. The tattooing campaign spread across the Khorat Plateau to more directly administer the ethnic Lao population. Tribute and taxes were calculated by the adult male population registered by tattooing. Politically, the move reduced the Lao kingdoms on the Khorat to little more than Siamese provinces, reducing the power and wealth of the vassal Lao aristocracy. The tattooing unified the Lao nobility and the general population, as it did the other ethnic minorities who had been moved to Khorat by the population transfers.

The Reign of King Anouvong[edit]

Wat Sisaket, Vientiane. Completed by King Anouvong in 1824.

In 1779, following the fall of Vientiane by King Taksin's army, the city was looted but was spared destruction, the Emerald Buddha and several other important Buddha images were taken to Siam, the sons and daughter of King Siribunyasan were taken as hostages, along with several thousand Lao families who were resettled in Saraburi, north of the Siamese capital. King Siribunyasan had three sons, who were all to succeed him as king of Vientiane – Nanthasen, Inthavong, and Anouvong.

On the death of Siribunyasan in 1781, Siam allowed his eldest son, Nathasen, to return to Vientiane as king. He was permitted to take with him the Phra Bang, a gold Buddha statue which had originally been brought from Angkor by Fa Ngum, the first king of Lan Xang, and was taken to Siam in 1779. In 1791, Nanthasan convinced Rama I that King Anourouth of Luang Prabang was secretly meeting with the Burmese and plotting a rebellion against Siam. Nathasan was permitted to attack Luang Prabang and captured the city in 1792. The Luang Prabang royal family were all sent to Bangkok as prisoners and remained there for four years. Two years later, Nanthasan was himself accused of plotting a rebellion against Siam with the Lao governor of Nakhon Phanom, allegedly making diplomatic overtures to Vietnam. Nanthasen was arrested (and possibly executed) in 1794.

In 1795, Inthavong was installed as King of Vientiane, with his brother Anouvong assuming the traditional post of vice-king (Oupahat). Burmese armies invaded Siam in both 1797 and 1802, and Inthavong dispatched several Lao armies under Anouvong to assistant in the defense. Anouvong gained recognition for his bravery and won several major victories in the Sipsong Chau Tai.

Inthavong died in 1804, and Anouvong succeeded him the ruler of Vientiane. By 1813 he had begun a series of religious and symbolic acts which remain highly controversial. Anouvong called a great Buddhist council of the sangha, only the third held in Laotian history, and it was decided that a new Emerald Buddha would be carved. Anouvong ordered repairs on the Haw Phra Kaew, and also ordered several new temples to be established and dedicated to the Emerald Buddha. Bizarrely, he ordered a major bridge to be built across the wide Mekong River.

In 1819 Anouvong rushed to suppress a rebellion in Kingdom of Champasak, led by a charismatic monk who had caused the ruler to flee to Bangkok. Anouvong’s son Nyo led an army south from Vientiane and easily suppressed the uprising. Since the king of Champasak by then had died, King Rama II appointed Nyo as the new king of Champasak. Anouvong thus had succeeded in uniting two of the three Lao kingdoms under his control. Also that year, he ordered the construction of Wat Sisaket, which was completed in 1824. The temple was a major statement of his authority, as it was intentionally oriented so that when Anouvong’s vassals came to pledge their annual allegiance, they physically turned their backs on Bangkok.

The Funeral of Rama II[edit]

The Siamese king Rama II died in 1824, and it was unclear who would succeed him. The likely successors were young Prince Mongkut, who was the son of Queen Sri Suriyendra, and Mongkut's elder and more experienced half-brother Prince Jessadabodindra, who was only the son of a court concubine. A crisis was avoided when Prince Mongkut chose to enter the Buddhist sangha as a monk. The potential crisis had led to the military being on high alert, and the British, who had recently begun the First Anglo-Burmese War, were closely monitoring the situation.

In the midst of these events, the Lao kings of Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champasak made their way to Bangkok for the royal funeral ceremonies to be held the following year in accordance with custom. The new King, Rama III, had already begun implementing the Thai census and forced tattooing policies in the Khorat Plateau. During this period, Anouvong's retinue and one of his sons were impressed into corvee labor projects, including digging canals, felling of sugar palms, harvesting bamboo, and constructing the Phra Samut Chedi. It appears that at one of the projects, Anouvong's son had been mocked and possibly even been beaten. Anouvong was furious and cut short the traditional obeisance at the Siamese court.

It is not clear whether Anouvong decided to rebel during his stay in Bangkok, or if he had already been planning it and was just awaiting an excuse. Nevertheless, he made demands before he left. He wanted the return of the Emerald Buddha, the release of his sister (who had been taken forty-five years earlier), and the return of the Lao families who had been forcibly relocated in Saraburi. Thai historians assert that Anouvong rebelled over a personal slight, when each of his requests was in turn denied and he was told he could return with only one dancer from his original retinue. However, the intensity of the Lao rebellion suggests the motivations were more complex.

Rebellion[edit]

Shrine to General Bodindecha, Thailand

By 1826 Anouvong was actively making military preparations for rebellion. His strategy involved three key points: 1) respond to the immediate crisis caused by the popular discontent over the forced tattooing; 2) remove the ethnic Laos on the Khorat Plateau to the Kingdom of Vientiane, conducting a scorched Earth policy as he did so to slow the inevitable Siamese pursuit; 3) seek a diplomatic victory by gaining support from Vietnam, China, or Britain.

Anouvong may have believed the balance of power in Southeast Asia was turning away from Siam. The factionalism at the Siamese court, the presence of the British in nearby Burma, the growing influence of Vietnam in the Cambodian provinces, and the regional dissatisfaction in the Lao areas suggested that Siamese power was waning. In 1827 the British had arrived to finalize the Burney Treaty between Siam and the British Empire, and the presence of the British fleet may have led Anouvong to believe that an invasion was imminent. However, his most serious miscalculation was in the disparity of military power between Siam and the Laos. From at least 1822, Siam had been purchasing large quantities of modern firearms and munitions from Britain, military surplus from the now ended Napoleonic Wars in Europe.

In December 1826, Anouvong's rebellion began with an army of 10,000 men making its way toward Kalasin, following the path of the Siamese tattooing officials. In January, Anouvong led a second larger force towards Nakhon Ratchasima and was able to take the city by a ruse. A contingent of Anouvong's army was sent to Lomsak and Chaiyaphum, before making its way to Saraburi to bring the Lao families there back to Vientiane. A fourth army led by Anouvong’s son Nyo, the King of Champasak, was dispatched to take Ubon. All of these armies moved under a web of misinformation and false dispatches that warned of impending attacks on Siam by neighboring powers.

Anouvong's planned retreats were slowed by the civilians who occupied the roads and passes. Lao commanders also delayed to search for the Thai officials responsible for tattooing, forcing those captured to march north as prisoners. Anouvong foolishly wasted over a month searching for the governor of Nakhon Ratchasima, who had been a key figure in the tattooing and population transfers.

Victory Chedi, Wat Tung Sawang Chaiyaphum

To Anouvong's surprise, Siam quickly organized a massive counterstrike and dispatched two armies, one by way of Saraburi to retake Nakhon Ratchasima, and the other through the Pasak Valley towards Lomsak. Anouvong's forces withdrew to Nong Bua Lamphu, the strongest fortress on the Khorat Plateau and traditionally held by the crown prince of Vientiane. After a three-day battle, Nong Bua Lamphu finally fell, and Anouvong's men fell back to a second line of defense. Siamese strength and modern arms were greater than Anouvong had imagined, and his armies continued to march towards Vientiane. They defended the city for five days, as Anouvong for fled his life towards the border with Vietnam.

The Siamese general Phraya Bodindecha (เจ้าพระยาบดินทรเดชา) at last took Anouvong's capital city. He sacked the palaces and leveled the city’s defenses, but he left the monasteries and much of the city intact. With the sack of Vientiane, the rulers of Chiang Mai, Lampang, Lamphun, Nan, Phrae, and the kingdom of Luang Prabang all pledged their renewed allegiance to Siam, although Phraya Bodindecha noted they had “waited to see the turn of events, and their actions greatly depended on the outcome of the war.”

Bodindecha spent several months organizing the removal of the remaining people from around Vientiane and confiscating all arms and munitions. He then left a small garrison across the river opposite the empty city and returned to the Khorat Plateau.

Anouvong eventually returned with about 1,000 soldiers and 100 Vietnamese observers. This small force was only meant to negotiate a settlement with Siam. However, he leaned that a nine-spired chedi had been erected as a victory monument at Wat Tung Sawang Chaiyaphum (วัดทุ่งสว่างชัยภูมิ) in the town of Yasothon. This enraged him, and he crossed the Mekong to attack the 300 Thai defenders, killing all but about 40. A now furious Rama III ordered Phraya Bodindecha to return and completely destroy the city of Vientiane, and to capture Anouvong at all costs.

Phraya Bondindecha pursued Anouvong to Xieng Khouang, where according to some accounts he was betrayed and handed over to the Siamese. Anouvong and his family were placed under heavy guard and marched to Bangkok. A British observer recalled:

[The king] was confined in a large iron cage exposed to a burning sun, and obliged to proclaim to everyone that the King of Siam was great and merciful, that he himself had committed a great error and deserved his present punishment. In this cage were placed with the prisoner, a large mortar to pound him in, a large boiler to boil him in, a hook to hang him by, and a sword to decapitate him; also a sharp-pointed spike for him to sit on. His children were sometimes put in along with him. He was a mild, respectable-looking, old grey-haired man, and did not live long to gratify his tormentors, death having put an end to his sufferings. His body was taken and hung in chains on the bank of the river, about two or three miles below Bangkok.

Aftermath[edit]

The city of Vientiane was totally destroyed and its population completely relocated. The destruction was so thorough that the first French explorers more than 30 years later found only ruins in a jungle to show where the city had once been. The remaining Lao kingdoms of Champasak and Luang Prabang understandably came under stricter control and arms limitations, while the Khorat Plateau was formally annexed by Siam. Regional rivals Siam and Vietnam would come into increasing conflict over control of the inland trade and Lao territory, leading to the Siamese-Vietnamese Wars of the 1830s. Vietnam annexed the Lao principality of Xieng Khouang, and Chinese bandits after the Taiping rebellion were able to force their way down the Mekong River to fight what became known as the Haw Wars of the 1860s. The first French explorers navigating the Mekong River used the political vacuum as a convenient excuse to create their own colony of French Indochina.

Legacy[edit]

The most significant legacy of Anouvong's Lao Rebellion was the impact of the forced population transfers throughout the region. As a consequence of the warfare and population transfers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there are now over 19 million ethnic Lao living in the Isan region of Thailand, while only 6 million live in the independent country of Laos. During the French colonial period, Vientiane was rebuilt as the Laotian capital in a deliberate attempt win favor and to demonstrate French authority.

Several accounts of the Siamese-Lao conflict have been written by historians and authorities, many in direct conflict with one another. In particular, the accounts of the Siamese heroines Thao Suranaree (or “Lady Mo”) and Khunying Boonleu have been popularized and possibly exaggerated. During the 1930s, Field Marshall Phibun promoted Siamese legends as part of a political and military campaign to unify all of the Tai peoples.

Similarly, the Lao and Isan-Lao stories of Anouvong and his son recall other legends. Unlikely as it seems, from the 1990s on the communist Pathet Lao have appropriated the story the Lao monarch's rebellion as a war of independence against Siamese cultural and political domination. In 2010 the communist government dedicated a large statue and surrounding gardens to King Anouvong.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Stuart-Fox 2008, pp. 11.
  2. ^ Stuart-Fox 2008, pp. 237.
  3. ^ Stuart-Fox 2008, pp. 349.
  4. ^ Stuart-Fox 2008, pp. 231.

References[edit]

  • Wyatt, David (2003). A Short History of Thailand. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300084757. 
  • Stuart-Fox, Martin (2008). Historical Dictionary of Laos. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. ISBN 9780810856240. 
  • Ngaosyvathn, Mayoury; Pheuiphanh Ngaosyvathn (1998). Paths to Conflagration: Fifty Years of Diplomacy and Warfare in Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, 1778-1828. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0877277230. 
  • Simms, Peter; Sanda Simms (1999). The Kingdoms of Laos: Six Hundred Years of History. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press. ISBN 9780700715312. 
  • Stuart-Fox, Martin (1998). The Lao Kingdom of Lan Xang: Rise and Decline. Bangkok, Thailand: White Lotus Press. ISBN 9748434338. 
  • Askew, Marc; William S. Logan; Colin Long (2007). Vientiane: Transformations of a Lao Landscape. New York, New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415596626.